Japanese animation, AKA anime, might be filled with large-eyed maidens, way cool robots, and large-eyed, way cool maiden/robot hybrids, but it often shows a level of daring, complexity and creativity not typically found in American mainstream animation. And the form has spawned some clear masterpieces from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira to Mamoru Oishii’s Ghost in the Shell to pretty much everything that Hayao Miyazaki has ever done.
Anime has a far longer history than you might think; in fact, it was at the vanguard of Japan’s furious attempts to modernize in the early 20th century. The oldest surviving example of Japanese animation, Namakura Gatana (Blunt Sword), dates back to 1917, though much of the earliest animated movies were lost following a massive earthquake in Tokyo in 1923. As with much of Japan’s cultural output in the first decades of the 20th Century, animation from this time shows artists trying to incorporate traditional stories and motifs in a new modern form.
Above is Oira no Yaku (Our Baseball Game) from 1931, which shows rabbits squaring off against tanukis (raccoon dogs) in a game of baseball. The short is a basic slapstick comedy elegantly told with clean, simple lines. Rabbits and tanukis are mainstays of Japanese folklore, though they are seen here playing a sport that was introduced to the country in the 1870s. Like most silent Japanese movies, this film made use of a benshi – a performer who would stand by the movie screen and narrate the movie. In the old days, audiences were drawn to the benshi, not the movie. Akira Kurosawa’s elder brother was a popular benshi who, like a number of despondent benshis, committed suicide when the popularity of sound cinema rendered his job obsolete.
Then there’s this version of the Japanese folktale Kobu-tori from 1929, about a woodsman with a massive growth on his jaw who finds himself surrounded by magical creatures. When they remove the lump, he finds that not everyone is pleased. Notice how detailed and uncartoony the characters are.
Another early example of early anime is Ugokie Kori no Tatehiki (1931), which roughly translates into “The Moving Picture Fight of the Fox and the Possum.” The 11-minute short by Ikuo Oishi is about a fox who disguises himself as a samurai and spends the night in an abandoned temple inhabited by a bunch of tanukis (those guys again). The movie brings all the wonderful grotesqueries of Japanese folklore to the screen, drawn in a style reminiscent of Max Fleisher and Otto Messmer.
And finally, there is this curious piece of early anti-American propaganda from 1936 that features a phalanx of flying Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) attacking an island filled with Felix the Cat and a host of other poorly-rendered cartoon characters. Think Toontown drawn by Henry Darger. All seems lost until they are rescued by figures from Japanese history and legend. During its slide into militarism and its invasion of Asia, Japan argued that it was freeing the continent from the grip of Western colonialism. In its queasy, weird sort of way, the short argues precisely this. Of course, many in Korea and China, which received the brunt of Japanese imperialism, would violently disagree with that version of events.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.